Failure does not warrant an F

Capitol Journal

It’s time to grade Jerry Brown on his first year back as California’s governor. He certainly doesn’t rate an A.

But he hardly deserves an F either, even if he did fail in his most important task: forging a bipartisan compromise on taxes, spending and deficit reduction.

It’s a bear to negotiate with Republicans when they shrivel into a ball at the mere mention of taxes.


Grading Brown is a tough call.

What did he actually accomplish?

His biggest achievement is essentially overlooked: He didn’t screw things up worse.

That is a monumental feat, especially given some past governors in their freshman years. This governor, of course, is no freshman. He long ago learned to recognize pitfalls.

Brown heeded the admonishment of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “First … do no harm.”

In fact, Brown started the state on a slow mend to fiscal recovery.

The Democrat inherited a $25-billion deficit. Then he prudently dug the hole $1 billion deeper by canceling a terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger-negotiated sale and lease-back of 24 state buildings that ultimately would have cost taxpayers billions.

Brown and Democratic legislators attacked the deficit by slashing $16 billion in spending, including nearly $1 billion in cuts the governor imposed two weeks ago when tax revenue fell short.

Republicans essentially sat in the bleachers, booing and chanting that the deficit was the Democrats’ problem.

Bottom line: Brown soon is expected to project a new shortfall of around $12 billion through June 2013. That’s not miracle working, but it’s steady progress.


The governor generally has adhered to the three “principles” he campaigned on and reiterated in his inaugural address:

“Speak the truth. No more smoke and mirrors on the budget.”

Well, a little smoke and mirror: He wishfully penciled in a $4-billion revenue boost to balance the budget on paper. But later when all the money didn’t come in, he and the Legislature were ready with preapproved cuts.

“Return — as much as possible — decisions and authority to cities, counties and schools, closer to the people.”

He achieved a controversial, landmark shifting of some state responsibilities to local governments, including incarceration of low-level prisoners. It’s called “realignment” in government lingo.

“No new taxes unless the people vote for them.”

This was an unfortunate promise Brown made when running for governor in a too-clever-by-half effort to undercut opponent Meg Whitman’s false characterization of him as a liberal tax and spender.

“It was very effective,” recalls Whitman strategist Rob Stutzman. “In retrospect, he would have won anyway. It sure has handcuffed him.”

“I hate to be crass,” says Democratic consultant Ben Tulchin, “but campaign promises are made to be broken. You don’t need to stick to a promise after you’ve made a considerable effort to keep it and you can’t.”

It’s hard to find anyone around the Capitol outside the governor’s office who doesn’t think the promise was wrongheaded.

At the least, Brown should have chucked the pledge after the GOP blocked his efforts to call a special election on taxes. I tried to keep it, but Republicans wouldn’t let me.

“How do you govern in this environment?” asks Republican consultant Ray McNally. “It’s almost impossible. The problem is everyone is dug in on both sides.”

Brown, McNally says, “is a giant in a land of midgets. He’s the only one left who remembers how they used to make deals and advance agendas.”

But critics say that Brown, who was governor from 1975 to 1983, reentered Sacramento living in the past; he didn’t realize the culture had changed, that the Legislature had become more polarized, beholden to special interests and inept because of term limits. He wasted time trying to deal with Republicans.

Nonsense. Maybe he was afflicted with a little hubris. But Brown hasn’t been Rip Van Winkle for three decades. He knew, and he gave it a shot anyway.

The governor probably should have offered the GOP more on business regulatory relief and pension reforms, even if the latter angered labor. But he needed unions to finance his tax campaign — a dilemma that could have been avoided if he hadn’t made that inane promise to voters.

In the end, Brown didn’t produce the grand budget fix.

And if he fails in his 2012 venture — a November ballot initiative to raise income taxes on the rich and sales taxes on everyone — it’ll take a huge chunk out of him politically.

More important, it’ll be another setback for public education and law enforcement, among other already-chopped government services. And there won’t be money to permanently fund his dumping of some state services onto the locals.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In his first year back, Brown also deserves credit for the unprecedented act of vetoing the Legislature’s initial budget offering, which reeked of gimmickry.

He boldly attacked powerful local redevelopment agencies that have been operating as if it were boom times while siphoning off property taxes that should be going to schools. He will have pulled $1.7 billion from the agencies, if the action holds up in court.

But his administration sat on billions in public works bonds that could have been used to create construction jobs.

And there are plenty of people — friend and foe — who complain about his, well, arrogance. He can be fun, stimulating and impressive, but also a bit self-righteous and self-absorbed.

No question, he’s still a rebel and a contrarian.

So the grade? Give him a B. Attach a note that says “Jerry is very smart and does his homework, but needs to be more courteous.”